If you’re struggling with a character, author Bonnie Phelps shares her techniques with us…
Writers all have their own process for getting from the blank page to “The End.” For me the page stays blank until I figure out who my main characters are and what motivates them to do what they do. Over the past decade of creating profiles for my characters I seem to have been following the Goldilocks and the Three Bears principle – too big, too little, and I’m finally beginning to hone in on ‘just right’.
Procrastination could be the reason my original character profiles fell under the ‘too big’ category. I didn’t think I could get started on the story until I knew everything there was to know about my new imaginary best friends. I went as far as creating a Briggs/Meyer personality profile for my hero and heroine. Following is a sample of information I included in the profile.
Type of Residence:
Father: Name and background
Mother: Name and background
List each brother and sister and something about them
List each and how they are connected to the character
Favorite Products: (perfume/aftershave, clothing line, cereal – anything that might come up in the story, especially if it’s mentioned repeatedly)
College and major:
Physical Description (including clothes and mannerisms):
Height: Weight: Hair color: Eyes:
Other details about how character looks.
Words to describe him/her:
PERSONALITY DETAILS (traits, self-image, yearnings/dreams, fears, sense of humor, code of ethics, attitude, etc.):
Attitude/Code of Ethics/Values:
Other details and why are these things important to him/her (hobbies; favorites, colors, books, music, pets, art, subjects in school, speech patterns, etc.):
Background that may influence motivation (early education, family relationships, early childhood experiences, financial situation, other relationships, habits, health, environment, etc.):
What are his/her goals?
What demons does he/she need to slay or problems to overcome in this book?:
What characteristics does he/she value in a person?
What does he/she think he/she wants in her spouse?
What kind of man/woman has he/she been attracted to in the past?
Other than memories, what are the tangible trinkets he/she saved and treasures from her past?
Where has he/she failed or triumphed? Why is he/she happy or displeased with his/her efforts?
Of current events, what would he/she agree with, argue with? Would he/she be silent or vocal?
Things he/she likes about love interest:
Things about love interest that drive him/her crazy:
After trying this ‘too big’ tactic with my first two books – and never – ever – completing the entire outline – I decided maybe a panster approach to getting to know my characters would work better.
For the next iteration I stuck to the basics – name, age, profession, list of important secondary characters, and a brief backstory. Turns out this method proved to be ‘too small’ and didn’t provide the focus I needed to engage with my characters. As I was writing, I scribbled lots of miscellaneous information that I thought I might need to refer to later in the story on my profile sheet. Something was missing from each of these first two options.
I think I’ve finally hit on the ‘just right’ method (or at least I’m getting closer). One of the things my story editor always pounces on me for is conflict (or the lack thereof). I needed a way to get to know my character on a deeper level. Following is one of the profiles I created for “My Texas Heart” due out on May 28.
JOSH KINCAID: (shy nerd)
Backstory: The youngest of 3 brothers. Grew up on a Texas ranch and most of his extended family is involved in ranching or rodeoing. He’s a computer engineer and has always felt like he didn’t quite fit in – a lone wolf. Raised on traditional family values. He’s in the midst of a divorce and is the only one in his family to get a divorce. He will do anything to keep his ex-wife from moving his son to California. The reason for the divorce is that his ex is ambitious and wants someone higher up the wealth ladder. As a result, he’s suspicious of becoming involved with ambitious women. He’s also painfully shy except around people he knows well and stuttered as a child.
Wound: He’s different, he doesn’t belong.
Belief (If/Then): If he doesn’t overcome shyness, he will lose his son.
Coping Mechanism (50 words or less): All his life, he’s (avoided) social situations. That’s why he’s a computer engineer. He looks for solo activities. His shyness prevents him from standing up for himself and others. He’d rather be tossed in a pit of hungry lions, then have to talk in public.
External Conflict: My hero/heroine, (Josh), wants (to stay connected to his son), but (his ex-wife’s remarriage and move out-of-state) stands in his way.
Internal Conflict: (Josh), believes (he’s different and therefore may not be the best one to care for his son) and must learn (to believe people never looked at him the way he thinks they did and he is a good parent despite being so shy) if he is to achieve (to keep his son).
At the start, Josh, lets his shyness limit him. By the end of the book, he has learned to deal with his shyness and even though it’s still difficult to stand up to others, he knows that he has the strength to do whatever it takes to protect his son. He learns that people do love him for who he is.
Name: Joshua Alan Kincaid – Josh for short
Age: 27 (birth year about 1990)
Birth Order: Youngest of 3 boys
Physical Description: 6’2”, dark brown hair, brown eyes,
Other facts: Rides a motorcycle
Profession: Computer Programmer, he’s a brilliant programmer and in high demand so commands a great salary.
Company: JSM Cyber Security
Home Town: Rocking K Ranch about 30 miles north of San Antonio and outside the town of Spring Branch.
Current Residence: Austin, TX but moves to San Jose, CA during the story
Family & Other Named Characters:
Father – Jack Kincaid; owns the Rocking K Ranch with Nate’s brother, Zach. Jack is a former rodeo man, a quiet man but when he says something, you’d better listen because it will be a keen insight.
Mother – Gloria June; a down to earth and no-nonsense woman. She says what she means and will give it to you straight. She’s the light of Jack’s life and he of hers. She is the grounding influence in the family.
Brother – Nate (35); Large animal veterinarian
Brother – Zach (30); Champion Rodeo Team Roper and part owner of the Rocking K Ranch.
Josh – (27)
Sister-in-Law – Ashley (Drayton) Kincaid (30), Zach’s wife.
Soon to be Sister-in-Law – Lauren Royall (30), Nate’s fiancé.
Son – Chad Michael Kincaid, (4). His favorite toy is a teddy bear.
Soon to be ex Wife – Cindy Johnson-Kincaid (27), and Chad’s mother. She is the HR Manager for JSM Cyber Security at the start of the novel.
Cindy’s Fiancé – Ron Melton
Nanny hired by Cindy & Jeff – Petra
Cindy’s Parents – Madge and Henry Johnson
Josh’s Austin Attorney – Jessica Sinclair
Josh’s San Jose Attorney – Calvin Reynolds
David Rush – friend from grade school who encouraged him to join him at JSM Cyber Security after they graduated from college. Other than his family, the only person Josh confides in.
While I still find myself adding in miscellaneous facts uncovered as the story unfolds to this profile, it’s proved to be a handy reference that keeps me on track. When new facets of the character’s personality are revealed, I add those to the profile and print out a new copy.
I know that one size does not fit all when it comes to the writing process, but hopefully one of these methods – or some combination of them – will be the one that works for you.
Rumor has it that Bonnie began telling stories at a very early age. Photos exist of the author toddling around the corner of the house covered in mud babbling about magic rabbits leading her through the garden. Her parents were amused – until they discovered she had also walked across the newly poured cement patio – which only added fuel to the fire of her passion for writing. From then on, her active imagination continued to churn out plots and character sketches always wondering how different people would behave in similar situations.
Bonnie used her writing skills throughout her professional life as a fundraiser and marketer for several nonprofits. She enjoyed the chance to tell and share the story of worthy organizations. In the late 1980s, Bonnie authored a syndicated column in several California newspapers in which she shared the experiences and misadventures of life as a wife and mother. The jury is out on whether or not her children always appreciated her candor. Because Bonnie has romance in her soul, she also worked as a Wedding Planner for several years. Absolutely loved it!! She craves anything sweet, revels in any chance to travel, and is addicted to Ancestry.com. A native Californian, the author lives in Northern California with her husband.
Connect with Bonnie Phelps